Is your God Two-faced?

In his book “The Jesus Driven Life” Michael Hardin draws our attention to an interesting proposition – that the God of most modern theology and as taken from most readings of the Bible is not the God that is revealed to us by Jesus.

He characterises traditional theology as deeply influenced by both pagan understandings of God as well as Platonic philosophy. This leads to two basic errors as he sees things. Firstly, under the influence of Platonic thinking, we have evolved notions of God that are just not Biblical, and are certainly not reflected in the teachings of Jesus, and he cites the first proposition of the Westminster Confession as a stark example of this.

Secondly, we have come to think of God in pagan terms, by which Hardin means that we have a transactional relationship with our God – “If I do this for God, God will do this for me” – who is capable of doing both good things and bad – or retributive – things to us. He draws a parallel between this idea of God and the ancient Roman god Janus, after whom January was named, who is most commonly referred to as the God of Peace and War.

If we do bad things, contrary to the will of God, we can expect war and pestilence as gifts from our God. If we do good things, in conformity with the will of God, then we can expect peace, wealth and many children as gifts from our God.

Hardin begins one of his chapters with this story as a way of illustrating this view of God:

“Imagine you are back in high school or college and the prettiest or most handsome person, the one who is intelligent and witty, outgoing, the one everyone wishes they could have as their boyfriend or girlfriend comes to you and says, “I want you to know that I really find you attractive, in fact, I love you.  I love you so much, so deeply, it astonishes me.  I want to be with you forever, you light up my life, you are the reason I exist.”  Wouldn’t that be just amazing?  One of the reasons for the popularity of romantic comedies is that the boy/girl is in these circumstances and they end up with the one they so desire.  Imagine spending your life with such a person who was absolutely devoted to you, who loved you with an undying love, who cared for you in ways you could not imagine or dream in your wildest dreams. 

“Now before you could respond with a “Yes” or a “Hallelujah, thank you Jesus!!” suppose they went on to say “But I also want you to know that if you will not love me in return I will make your life a living nightmare, a hell on earth.  I will spread rumours and lies about you; I will trash your home.  I will make it my life’s goal to punish you in every way possible if you won’t accept my love for you.”

This framework of understanding God is so embedded in out theology, our liturgy and our hymnody that we can only think of it as our “normal”, yet Hardin says that this is not what God is like if you examine the teachings of Jesus.

One of the common terms Jesus’ uses as a reference to God is “Abba” – a term of familial intimacy – which helps to make sense of the only two references Jesus makes of what God is like.  On one occasion, he says that if your child asks you for some bread, you wouldn’t give him a stone, or if they asked for some fish you wouldn’t give them a snake.  From this, Jesus asserts that even as we who are not perfect, know how to do good things for our children, even so much more will God give us good things.  On another occasion, Jesus draws our attention to the feeding and clothing of the most insignificant creatures on earth with abundance and glory.  From this, he concludes that we should not be anxious about having enough food and clothing in our lives because God will ensure that we are looked after because we are precious in the eyes of God.

The teaching of Jesus also portrays God as forgiving – forgiving of our sins even before they are committed – a grace which we are called on to replicate in our relationships with others.  His teachings call us to follow three basic commands – love God, love your neighbour and love your enemy.  By these three things we will fulfill the requirements of God.

So I ask you, is your God two-faced?  Is your God capable of punishing you as well as rewarding you?  Is your God both retributive and gracious?  It is hard work undoing so many years of theological reflection, but I really wonder if these words of Hardin that are taking us directly to the teaching and life of Jesus might not give us a much better idea of what God is like.


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